Books and Film

Lessons in Horsemanship from My Autistic Godson

©Pam White

Horses have been the key to remarkable breakthroughs for many on the autism spectrum. Paula Josa-Jones, renowned dancer and choreographer, feels there are lessons for all of us in these stories. In her book Our Horses, Ourselves, Josa-Jones relates how spending time with her autistic godson changed her way of moving, seeing, and acting, and how that impacts her relationship with horses.

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Phoebe Caldwell has worked for over 30 years as a practitioner with people whose severe learning disabilities are linked with behavioral distress. I discovered her in the course of working with my autistic godson, Jacob. His mother and I watched a video of Caldwell working with children and young adults using Intensive Interaction3, her method of engaging and communicating with the autistic person’s brain by using signals with which it is so familiar they do not trigger sensory distortions or sensitivities. In the film, Caldwell subtly reflects and responds to the movements and sounds that the autistic child is making.

Over a period of several minutes, we saw one child go from isolated, self-directed withdrawal or compulsive, repetitive, self-stimulating behaviors, to active, engaged, nonverbal connection with Caldwell. In her book, From Isolation to Intimacy, Caldwell states, “If I am to have any hope of meeting my partner, I need to learn to attend not only to his or her sensory experience, but also to how he or she receives my sensory messages. I do this by setting aside my own world and entering my partner’s, to focus not just with my eyes or ears, how I feel or see or hear—but with all my senses.”

My first thought was how similar this is to the way I believe we can better understand and communicate with our horses.

Caldwell goes on to say that we must do this by sliding in “without causing a ripple, so that we do not trigger our partner’s anxiety.” Reading that, I thought of Jane Goodall and the chimpanzees at Gombe; how she learned not just to imitate chimpanzee behavior, but also to slip seamlessly into their world of movement, sound, and sensing. And of Temple Grandin with her ability as an autistic person to understand that animals—particularly herbivores and prey animals—see the world in pictures, as she does….

We need a clearer and richer sense of our own bodies, finding ways to be more multisensory and flexible in our perceptions, less habitual, more exploratory and improvisational…. With our horses, that means stepping out of our habitual ways of interpreting their behaviors and our rote responses and assumptions, to listen more deeply for what connects us and for what is being communicated.

With my godson, Jacob, that has meant setting aside any agenda or particular goal when I am with him. I begin with a feeling of openness and attentiveness to what he is doing: how he is using the space, how his body is moving, and how he is responding to me moment to moment. I feel my own breathing and the relative tension or relaxation in my body, and visualize connecting my breathing to his. That becomes a baseline for our time together. When he is agitated or I am uncertain what to do next, I return to feeling my breath and connecting to his.

It is the same with my horse Amadeo: as we walk from the barn to the arena, I tune in to our breathing, feeling the way my feet connect to the earth and a synchrony between our walking rhythms. I pay attention to the softness and invitation in my hand on the lead rope or reins. While riding, if I lose the feeling of softness and harmony we had on the ground, we stop and stand, quietly breathing together until I feel that we are once more connected. Then we begin again.

©Pam White

Once when I was with Jacob, I noticed that if I looked toward (not at) him in a soft and general way—focusing equally on foreground and background, and including the periphery—rather than using a more narrow and pointed focus, he seemed to be calmer. “Global vision” is (as best we understand) how Jacob sees the world. When I join him in that way of seeing, he often opens to other ways of connecting.

During one of my weeklong visits to Jacob and his family, I noticed that when we were outside with Jacob, his mother was using her eyes continuously in a strong, piercing, direct way. She was used to having to watch her son this way—always alert, ready for the unexpected, always at least moderately activated. There wasn’t a recuperative break in that focus, and the tension in her eyes seemed to permeate her whole body. I invited her to let her vision soften, to try watching Jacob in a more peripheral, casual, global way. I suggested that she also intersperse moments of letting her eyes meander softly, aimlessly, instead of being always focused, laser-like, on Jacob. Within several moments, I could see a shift in her breathing pattern, as well as a releasing of her body into gravity and a significant expansion and relaxation in her chest and shoulders.

Most of us use our vision in a direct, focused way. We are often honing in, excluding the periphery, or trying to minimize distractions. The way we use our eyes mirrors our psychophysical state—“on” and “ready to go.” When we turn that sharply focused gaze on another being, it can trigger the nervous system to respond defensively or at least become mildly activated. I have found that this also happens with horses. Unconsciously using our focus in a direct or penetrating way may trigger their flight response or cause them to be more reactive when we approach.

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This excerpt from Our Horses, Ourselves by Paula Josa-Jones was adapted and reprinted with permission from Trafalgar Square Books (www.horseandriderbooks.com).